Budapest PLUS 48 Hours in Madrid
BISECTED BY THE DANUBE, BUDAPEST IS A CITY OF TWO HALVES: VERDANT PARKS AND COBBLED LANES ON ONE SIDE, GORGEOUS, GOLD-HUED ARCHITECTURE AND TEEMING NIGHTLIFE ON THE OTHER
bypassed by stag party-goers. Ignored by the Continental coach-tour crowd. Inexplicably jilted by couples in their haste to get to Paris or Prague. Budapest is the Cinderella of central Europe. Or at least it was. Last year, a readers’ choice award in a top travel magazine voted it the second-best city on the planet. (Cape Town came in 11th place; San Miguel de Allende in Mexico nabbed the top spot.) Right now, you can still enjoy the city’s broad boulevards, characterful bars and hot springs all to yourself, but hurry.The word’s out.
Budapest is essentially two cities in one: sedate, hilly Buda on the west bank of the Danube, and buzzy, low-lying Pest on the east. Arriving on either side, anyone even vaguely acquainted with Paris will feel a faint sense of déjà vu: with its tree-lined avenues and Art Nouveau façades, the city shares some of the French capital’s DNA, although 150 years of Ottoman rule have put an opulent, eastern cast on the architecture (you have them to thank for the domed roofs and Turkish baths).
In fact, Budapest has been tugged in several different directions by successive invaders (the Huns, the Turks, the Hapsburgs, the Soviets). Hungarians often complain of feeling stranded between east and west, and this sense of cultural displacement has left its mark on more than just the buildings. In the 1980s Hungary had the highest recorded rate
of suicide in the world. Though the last two decades have seen it slip down that list, and Budapest today feels energised and optimistic, the Hungarian national character does retain something of that old inner darkness. Talk in bars comes clever, serious and laced with the cordite whiff of fatalism.
I have to admit, I dragged my feet a bit when my boyfriend announced he wanted to start the day at the House of Terror ( Terrorhaza.hu), a museum in Pest that documents 40 years of Communist rule. But it’s essential viewing, serving as a reminder of how far Hungary has come. If you can, walk back via the red-roofed Houses of Parliament (Kossuth Lajos tér 1-3): the square here still bears the bullet holes of the 1956 uprising.
I was hoping to offset a morning’s culture by spending the rest of the day eating cake, swilling Tokaji wine and flopping round in our comfortable suite. But instead we went to the Dohány Street Synagogue ( Dohanyutcaizsinagoga.hu), the largest in Europe, and I’m glad we did: first, because the synagogue looks so beguilingly strange (a melange of Moorish, Gothic and Byzantine influences). And because it houses the Raoul Wallenberg Memorial Park. In the cool, dark courtyard there’s a steel weeping willow, each leaf carved with names of the dead. It commemorates not only the 400 000 Hungarian Jews killed in the Holocaust, but also the resilience of the survivors.
SOAK IT ALL IN
Not all Budapest culture is so confronting. The Ottomans’ parting gift – tiled bathhouses – mean you can spend hours soaking in hot water and legitimately call it sightseeing. Budapest is the spa capital of Europe, with more geothermal sites than any other city. Some spas are exclusive, like the eyrie on top of the Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace ( Fourseasons.com/budapest).
Others are cheerfully democratic. The 16th century Rudas Baths ( Rudasbaths.com) is the oldest spa in the city, and offers underwater massages. Go on a Tuesday or weekends; at other times, it’s men only. The Gellért Spa ( Gellertbath.com) is certainly the most famous. We visited the Széchenyi Baths ( Szechenyibath.com) in spring and had the benediction of the slanting Hungarian sun, but it’s even better in winter, when you can enjoy the surreal sensation of steaming in the water as snowflakes settle on your skin.
Fun fact: Hungary reportedly has the highest proportion of green-eyed people in the world (one per cent of people globally have green eyes, as opposed to 20 per cent of the population here). It seemed almost everyone I met looked back at me with envy-coloured eyes; the rabbi at Dohány Street Synagogue, the receptionist at the Four Seasons, the sales assistant in the bookshop.
Like many central European countries, Hungary has a reputation for serving mostly bad food. While I have some sympathy for the drubbing they’ve received (I’m English, after all) it has to be said that a lot of their dishes are indelibly bad: thin broth, heavy dumplings, pancakes filled with unidentifiable bits of meat. But a few chefs are now rehabilitating the cuisine, treating staples with a lighter touch and winning Michelin stars in the process.
For modern Hungarian, try either Costes or Onyx in Pest.The narrow dining room at Costes ( Costes.hu) is decorated in such minimal style it resembles the set of a fringe play, presumably to offset the variegated beauty of the food: scarlet and cream macaroons; cool jade cucumber shaved into spirals; translucent spheres of salmon caviar.
At the more formal Onyx ( Onyxrestaurant.hu), try the veal tartare with green apple and wood sorrel, followed by its 21st century take on the Somló sponge cake.
You can’t gorge on Michelin-starred food all the time, though, and you won’t need to. Our best meal was lunch at 21 Hungarian Kitchen ( 21restaurant.hu), a laid-back bistro in the Castle District that serves food like celery and elderflower ravioli in broth.
One more thing: Budapest runs on strong coffee (another legacy of Turkish rule) and locals take theirs with thick slabs of cake. Bypass the tourist trap of Café Gerbeaud, and tuck into dobos (sponge layered with chocolate, nuts and caramel), and esterházy, filled with cream and almonds, or mátyás cake at diminutive Ruszwurm on the Buda side ( Ruszwurm.hu).
TAKE IT OUTSIDE
Buda is connected to Pest by a series of elegant bridges, yet it feels quite removed from the teeming city centre. Some prefer to take the funicular up to the Castle District, but we chose to walk, and the views across the Danube were their own reward. Behind the castle complex (home to the Budapest National Gallery and the National Library), the cobbled streets feel slow and comparatively suburban. Come here for breathing space, quiet cafés and a glimpse of the Matthias Church with its Baroque architecture and diamond-patterned roof.
This pastoral feel extends to Pest’s kerteks, ‘ruin bars’ set around open-air courtyards that come into their own in high summer. Szimpla Kert ( Szimpla.hu) is the best known, but if you’re after something a little smoother around the edges, try Ötkert ( Otkert.hu), which serves Champagne cocktails to a dressed-up crowd. Though not actually a ruin bar, Brody Studios ( Brodyhouse.com), in the city’s upand-coming 8th District, works along the same artfully distressed lines. Alongside the usual roster of live music, they host literary dinners, art exhibitions and film screenings.
In fact, wherever you go in Budapest, prepare to skip the small talk. Hungarians like to mull over big questions and hard truths with their drinks. At Doblo ( Budapestwine.com), a vaulted wine bar with bare brick walls and dark wood tables, the ursine, grimly charismatic owner, David Popovits, plied us with a fullbodied red to go with pickles, sausage and smoked goosebreast sandwiches, while talking to us about melancholic Hungarian concerns, marriage, love and loyalty.
Boutiq’ Bar ( Boutiqbar.hu), a dark, doll-sized speakeasy tucked away down a side street near the river, has the best stocked bar in the city. Owner Zoltán Nagy trained for several years in London and came back full of missionary zeal, determined to turn his hometown onto cocktails. And if his cardamomed creation (strawberries and cardamom pods, blended with several shots of vodka) doesn’t manage to convert them? Then, frankly, they’re beyond help.
Clockwise from far left The Danube flows serenely past the Hungarian Parliament; Fashion Street; a wall in the House of Terror, honouring victims of Hungary’s Communist past; street style; the Széchenyi Baths; the interior of Boutiq’Bar.
Clockwise from above Ötkert nightclub by day; a local fashionista; the Hungarian Agricultural Museum; the preferred way to get about.